Todd Rundgren “White Knight”

Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren “White Knight”

If there is one thing Todd Rundgren can be counted on, it’s that he will do his own thing (good or not) without a thought toward commercial success or his fan base. After what I like to think of as his “golden” musical period ending in the early ’90s, he then emerged as a techno-futurist, with experiments in EMD, ambient, and rap music. Although ahead of his time and putting off many fans, Rundgren has continued breaking musical taboos and deconstructing his own work (and other artists’ music as well). He persisted in making music with techno beats and synth textures but proved his guitar prowess again on 2008’s Arena.

By the time we got to 2013’s State and 2015’s Global, Rundgren’s music had become slightly more accessible. His satiric voice and natural melodic abilities came bubbling up from all that thick custom-made production gloss. That all leads us to White Knight.

This is more like Rundgren’s version of Duets (sort of). He teams up with a variety of artists from assorted genres on a variety of songs and even has three solo tunes. While he remains a master of atmospherics on the opener “Come,” the collaborations are a mixed bag. The dream pairing here is with Daryl Hall and Bobby Strickland on “Chance for Us,” with the best Philly soul vocal duo asking, “Is there still a chance for us?/Or does the music die?” Wow. Why did it take so long to get these guys together?

The humorous commentary is always a part of Mr. Rundgren’s arsenal, as on the anti-Trump gem “Tin Foil Hat,” which is aided by Donald Fagen (Steely Dan). The sweet ballad “That Could Have Been Me” with lead vocals by Robyn is another keeper. It’s a case of Rundgren getting the best elements from his collaborators to enhance his songs. With the rock/pop genre, he is a master of this – but when he goes outside his element, like electro-disco on “Naked & Afraid,” it sounds contrived and overly commercial.

The biggest smile crossed my face when I heard “Let’s Do This,” a power pop duet with Moe Berg (The Pursuit of Happiness). Another interesting pairing is with Joe Walsh on “Sleep,” with its plucked guitar chords, strings, and soothing chorus. There is another worthy tune, “Buy My T,” which sounds like a Prince parody, but damn it’s catchy.

Simply put, this is the best Todd Rundgren album in a very long time. Just these tracks I mentioned make up for the rest, which are either overindulgent vanity pieces or simply boring songs. After decades in the music business, veteran musicians tend to either coast on their reputation (like Stevie Wonder) or indulge in personal projects that their fans barely tolerate. It’s rare for that music legend, already venerated, to produce something new that can appeal to the existing fan base (like Ian Hunter). So for you Rundgren fans, it is a definite must buy. Others may want to stick to his various greatest hits packages.

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The Naturals and Phenomenal Cat

The Naturals

The Naturals “We Are The Naturals”

Brothers Aaron and Keiren Jolly are The Naturals. Having “discovered” The Beatles, The Kinks and The Zombies in their teens, they have faithfully developed their craft through a 1960s rock and roll framework. It’s tough to create catchy originals, that could’ve been big hits in another era – but The Naturals make it sound so easy.

The intro “We Are The Naturals” is gleefully anachronistic, followed by the psychedelic backbeat of “I Don’t Need A Car,” laying in the Farfisa organ and guitar. There simply isn’t a bad song here, the jangling “Out of My Head” and the driving riffs of “Billy” remind me of The La’s. For sheer joyful power pop just listen to “Mary Go Round” and the awesomely stick-in-your-head-forever “Pretty Young.” The songs are brilliantly melodic with the traditional boy-meets-girl theme. Fans of retro bands like The Above or The Weeklings will not want to miss this one. Highly Recommended.

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Phenomenal Cat

Phenomenal Cat “Pop Wasteland”

Pop Wasteland is the soundtrack for a graphic novel by the English rock band Phenomenal Cat. The story is about a man named Albert Blood who finds himself swept along in a crusade against a dystopian society. The album’s spoken parts are narrated by British actor, Kenneth Colley (Star Wars, The Life of Brian).

The mood is an amalgam of Neill Blomkamp’s work (Elysium, District 9) with just a touch of Mr. Roboto. The opener “Albert Blood” describes the post-natural disaster scene with horns and guitar, as Albert is shuffled into his prison-like surroundings to a Mod beat. The music is inventive as “Satellites” rocks, and the scratchy demo “Sugarloaf Hill” is the water damaged cassette our hero listens to. The title track is a nostalgic look back on rock and roll, with a saxophone lead. The production is impressive, standout tracks include; “Welcome To Suburbia,” the glam rocker “Fade In/Fade Out,” and “The Dead Seekers,” which brings to mind The Dandy Warhols. Overall the gloomy thematic approach lacks variety, but the good news is this is a “name your price” download and with a $3 graphic novel it’s a bargain.

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The Relationship and Jamie & Steve

The Relationship

The Relationship “Clara Obscura”

Brian Bell’s (Weezer) second band The Relationship has returned to with a sophomore LP that fully distinguishes itself as a force to be reckoned with. The meticulously built opener “Missing” is a prelude to the album’s break-up theme.

The lead single “Break Me Open” is a hook-filled plea that doesn’t let up, and one of the best building ballads “Without Me” is about what happens when the person that broke up with you has moved on even if you haven’t. Life goes on in “Working On Myself” which brings to mind Fastball and the optimistic ascending chords of “Smile” are all about getting over the blahs. With “Hawthorne” strings are added to this Beach Boys tribute that would make a perfect wedding song. The ending track “This Year’s Children” has more strings, and an ELO styled composition. Not only is each song great, but they tell a memorable, complete story. That also makes it a nominee for my top ten best album of 2017.

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Jamie and Steve

Jamie and Steve “Sub Textural” EP

Even after 40 years together, Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel (Spongetones) continue to make jangling melodic gems and Sub Textural is proof positive that this duo hasn’t missed a beat.

The songs were all recorded across different years, but you wouldn’t know it. Starting with “Sword Of Love” it’s jangling treasure spinning like a mix of Squeeze and XTC here.  “It’s All Because Of You” is a very McCartneyesque guitar song with lots of texture (hmmm). The best thing here is the contrasting textures in “In A Little Tango,” with its 10cc-like shifts in soft and heavy sounds. The layered acapella harmonies make “Cry” another can’t miss beauty. What else can I say… long live Jamie and Steve! Highly Recommended.

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Cheap Trick and Screamfeeder

Cheap Trick

Cheap Trick “We’re All Alright!”

Cheap Trick is considered one of the longest running power pop bands ever but they have decided to let loose with more of hard rock and roll album than anything in their storied past. Like last year’s Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello the band’s direction is less melodic and runs more on manic energy. Ever since Daxx Nielsen replaced Bun E. Carlos as the band’s drummer – he’s seemly given the entire band a shot of youth serum.

Starting with the guitarist Rick Nielsen’s monster riffs of opener “You Got It Going On,” it’s a sing out loud anthem that rocks the socks off bands half their age. And it doesn’t let up as “Long Time Coming,” and “Nowhere” keep the energy level high. “Radio Lover” is a shelved single from the late ’90s that also fits right in here. Robin Zander takes a glammy turn on “Lolita” and his vocals are ageless too. More consistent and less studio gloss than Bang, Zoom… the band sounds like it’s having fun again. No duds here either, and so get the deluxe edition with extra tracks. On these, the band takes The Move’s “Blackberry Way” and makes it their own, plus a brilliant power ballad finisher “If You Still Want My Love.” Highly Recommended.

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The Naturalas

Screamfeeder “Pop Guilt”

Heavy indie pop band Screamfeeder was born in the ‘90s and became one of Australia’s most-loved bands, its youthful fuzz riffs tempered by catchy melodies. For over 20 years the band has made the transition to adulthood seamlessly. Like other veteran bands of the era (Redd Kross, The Figgs) they have improved with age and Pop Guilt evokes that early punk spirit with high energy riffs and explosive drumming.

Starting with the guitar buzz of “Half Lies” is a great start, “All Over Again” combines leads guitarist Tim Steward and bassist/vocalist Kellie Lloyd very much in the mold of Hüsker Dü with a droning rhythm under each melody. Highlights include “Got A Feeling,” “Alone In A Crowd” and “Karen Trust Me.” Not everything sticks and the band admits this lyrically on the generic sounding “Making It Up,” the lack of variety on some tunes allow them to sonically blend into each other. However, we end with the defiant “I’m Fighting” and overall fans of ’90s alt. pop punk will enjoy this.

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BMX Bandits and The Poster Boy

BMX Bandits

BMX Bandits “BMX Bandits Forever”

One of the longest running power pop bands is the BMX Bandits, started in 1985 and led by singer/guitarist Duglas T. Stewart with a rotating line-up of musicians. Former members went on to form Teenage Fanclub and The Soup Dragons. After a long period of inactivity, the band reformed with vocalist Rachel Mackenzie in 2006 and made a few more albums before hibernating again.

Now Stewart’s back and concentrating on sweet love songs with Stuart Kidd (Linden), David Scott (The Pearlfishers) and Joe Kane (Dr. Cosmo’s Tape Lab) for BMX Bandits Forever. Opening with the earnest and easy listening “My Girl Midge” it’s an intimate style of indie pop. Recalling the simple melodies of late era Beach Boys, Stewart’s laid-back approach works on “Mais Do Que Valsa (Just A Memory)” and “Save Our Smiles.” It does get playful, with the polka kiddie tune “Way of The Wolf,” and hummable “It’s Time.” Another highlight is the dark gem “Razorblades and Honey” with Anton Newcombe (The Brian Jonestown Massacre) supplying an infectious bass line.

Some of this doesn’t work – from a painful cover of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” to the forgettable “Love Me ’Til My Heart Stops” and The Beach Boys cover “Forever.” However, some of the best new music about romance is part of this album, so check it out.

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The Poster Boy

The Poster Boy “On the Count of Three”

Its been several years since we heard from Budapest power poppers Poster Boy. Sadly, the band broke up last May and they released this final album, which is more alternative pop oriented. The opener “Heartache” and “Pedestrian Street (Sucker Punch)” still features guitarist Noel R. Mayer and bassist Imre Poniklo, but the tone is much darker.

The solid “Karen” is a song about the late Karen Carpenter with a catchy chorus and steady beat “yearning for some divinity.” The band does make an attempt to lift the mood with the quick tempo desperation of “Smile” and the bouncy harmonies in “Birthday.” Worth checking out, but it’s a long way from the joyous innocence of their debut Melody.

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